Plugging leaks led to Watergate

Plugging leaks led to Watergate


The biggest political scandal of the modern world, Watergate, which forced a US President to resign for the first and, so far, the only time in history, started from leaks. I thought of this matter at the weekend because right now, the Tinubu Presidency is plagued with leaks and is struggling to plug them. Did I say “plug” them? That was exactly what Richard Nixon’s Administration tried to do in the early 1970s and it ultimately led to Watergate, but first things first.

At the weekend, we had the issue of the leaked Qatar note verbale. President Tinubu is planning a visit to Qatar in early March, and a leaked document indicated that the Qataris had turned down a Nigerian proposal to hold a business forum on the sidelines of the presidential visit. Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf Tuggar issued a statement confirming that Tinubu will indeed go to Qatar, as the document indicated. As to the business forum issue, the minister said he will not comment on leaked documents. Which created the impression in skeptical minds that the document is true.

Which indeed it is because on Saturday evening, Special Adviser to the President on Information and Strategy, Bayo Onanuga, issued a statement saying, “We are aware of a leaked diplomatic correspondence between the Embassy of the State of Qatar in Abuja and our Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s state visit to Qatar between 2 and 3 March, 2024. The leaked diplomatic paper by mischief makers about an investment forum is not in any way a snub on President Tinubu by the Qatari government. The Note Verbale is about a private sector-led Business and Investment Forum to be held on the margins of President Bola Tinubu’s State Visit.” In other words, the Qataris did turn down the proposed forum, for which they gave three reasons, but it was not a snub. The only problem I see there was that they addressed their letter to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not to the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA). We heard late Sunday that the Qataris backtracked and the forum will now hold.

Snub or not, the leaked Qatari letter is only the latest leaked document that has shaken the Presidency. If I remember right, the first such leak was of a September 2023 memo by State House permanent secretary, in which the president approved $422,000 for his hotel reservation to attend the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, and another $84,000 for meals and transport. It was shocking that such a deep inside State House document leaked.

Two months later in early December, the media reported that Nigeria sent a large delegation of 1,400 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [Cope 28] in Dubai. While that information was openly sourced, leaked papers soon followed about the composition of the delegation, which the government struggled to explain, including by publishing a statement that only about 400 were government-sponsored delegates.

Most damaging however was the leaked document in early January showing Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation Betta Edu requesting Accountant General of the Federation to transfer N585 million into the personal account of a civil servant, said to be in charge of grant to vulnerable groups in four states. Although the Accountant General turned down the instruction, it turned out that the money was paid. The source of the leak was not very difficult to fathom because only two days earlier, Edu herself got the Presidency to suspend the head of National Social Investment Program Agency [NSIPA] for moving funds into other accounts. The minister has been on suspension ever since. Hardly a week later, another memo leaked, showing that Chief of Staff to the President Femi Gbajabiamila conveyed to Betta Edu the president’s approval to use N3 billion from the COVID palliative funds to verify the National Social Register. Apparently, it was part of these funds that she sought to transfer to a personal account, which ignited the scandal.

Yet another document soon leaked, that Minister of Interior Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo’s firm, New Planet Projects, got a N438 million contract from the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry for the verification of the National Social Register. The minister said he resigned from being the firm’s chairman five years ago, but admitted that his wife still runs it. Then early in February, still another document leaked, indicating that Secretary to the Government of the Federation [SGF] George Akume requested for N1.8 billion for the inauguration of the tripartite committee to renegotiate the national minimum wage. The president turned down the request as too high; it was reduced to N1 billion, and he said they should “start with 500 million first.” While the memo suggested the money was only for the 37-member committee’s inauguration, the president appeared to think it was for its entire work, by saying “start with” this sum first.

The government was so unhappy with all these leaks that on February 20, it launched a campaign to plug them. Head of Civil Service of the Federation Dr Folashade Yemi-Esan issued a memo warning all civil servants against leaking and circulating official information and documents. She said any officer caught engaging in such acts would be severely punished in accordance with the Public Service Rules. She said government “observed with dismay, the increase in the cases of leakage of sensitive official documents in Ministries, Departments and Agencies. This is very embarrassing to the government and therefore unacceptable.” This memo, warning against leaks, was soon leaked to the social media. One site even celebrated that “The memo against official leaks has leaked!”

The Head of Service did proffer a solution to the leaks, saying all permanent secretaries should fast-track the migration to the digitalised workflow system and ensure effective deployment of the Enterprise Content Management Solution. “This will reduce physical contact with official documents thereby checking the increasing incidence of leakage and circulation of same. Furthermore, permanent secretaries are advised to strongly warn all staff against leaking and circulating official information and documents.” Apparently they did not migrate fast enough because it did not prevent a leaking of the Qatar note verbale.

Special Adviser Bayo Onanuga had a more combative solution. He said government should take action in identifying and removing individuals leaking classified documents and are believed to have allegiance to the opposition. He added, “There are so many moles around who are probably doing the bid of the opposition. They are not respecting the civil service rule for handling official secrets. And it shows that the government should look inwards to probe how memos between officials are getting into the public space. Memos that are supposed to be secret are not supposed to be flying all over the place.”

I am not saying that government should not plug leaks, but in doing so, it should be mindful of historical precedents. That is where Watergate comes in. Almost from its start in January 1969, US President Richard Nixon’s Administration was plagued with leaks. There are a few historical parallels that I see between the Nixon and Tinubu presidencies. The election of both men was a strong three-way contest. In the December 1968 American poll, Republican candidate Nixon got 43.4% of the vote; Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey got 42.7%- and third-party candidate George Wallace [of the American Independent Party] grabbed 13.5% of the vote. In the 2023 Nigerian case, President Tinubu got 36.6% of the votes, Atiku Abubakar got 29% while Peter Obi got 25%.

The problem with being elected with less than an overwhelming majority is that you will have many disgruntled people to contend with, including civil servants and security agents who supported other candidates. Most of them are faithful officials who return to their duties once the election is over, but you cannot rule out the “moles” that Onanuga was talking about who are bent on continuing the political struggle by other means.

In the American case, the main motive is ideological and political. During the Nixon era, probably a majority of US civil servants were liberals who did not like his conservative Administration. They had the ready support of top American media houses, which were mostly liberal-inclined. In our own case, there aren’t many left wingers in the Nigerian civil service these days who will oppose the Presidency’s socio-economic policies on ideological grounds. There are even fewer of them in the security services and the military. The few areas in Nigeria today where there is more than a sprinkling of left-wingers is in academia and the human rights groups. Even Nigerian students are no longer left-wing these days. So, while we have few left wingers around, the Administration still has lots of opponents who support rival parties and candidates for regional, ethnic, religious or other reasons. That’s a lot of moles.

The leak that drove the Nixon Administration over the edge was the Pentagon Papers leak by Daniel Elsberg in 1971, which revealed it had secretly been bombing the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in Cambodia  as part of the larger war in Vietnam. Soon afterwards, top Nixon staff created what they called White House Special Investigations Unit, also called “Room 16 Project” and sometimes, “The Plumbers.” Their work was to investigate and plug leaks. It was this team, led by David Young and the former CIA and FBI agents E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy [they took their name styles from the legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover] that sought to plug leaks. Together with the four professional Cuban burglars hired from Florida, they later graduated into the team that burgled Democratic Party Chairman Larry O’Brien’s office in the Watergate Hotel Complex. They were caught, and the scandal ultimately brought down Richard Nixon.

I agree with the Presidency that it should try to stop embarrassing leaks of official documents. One way to do it is ensure that top officials stop generating embarrassing documents and relying on official secrecy to hide it. I agree with Oga Bayo Onanuga that there are moles buried deep in the public service. But in trying to uproot them, the Presidency should be mindful not to create a monster that will go the way of the White House Plumbers and precipitate an even bigger crisis.

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